Rhodell E. Owens
Cornelius Amory Pugsley Local Medal Award, 1974
Rhodell E. Owens (1915-2003) received the Pugsley Medal in 1974. His love for nature was fostered in his early childhood. He was raised in Randlett, Utah, as the ninth and youngest child of two teachers. His father was a government agent who taught Ute Indians how to farm and ranch on the reservations. His mother was a school teacher. The country surrounding the Owens family was vast and mountainous with fertile forests, and it was here that Owens developed an affinity for the land. This affinity, together with his awareness of the satisfaction his father received from working with the Ute Indians, persuaded Owens that he wanted to pursue a career in public service protecting natural areas.
Owens chose to pursue a career in forestry. He attended junior college for two years and subsequently graduated with a double major in forest management and forest recreation from Utah State University in 1938. After graduation, he discovered that the forestry field was saturated and looked for an alternative to the US Forest Service or a state forestry agency. He was advised that regional, county and city management of natural resources was an emerging field, so he decided to return to school. This time he headed east to study at the State University of New York at Syracuse, where he was offered a three year teaching fellowship. He earned a master's degree in landscape and recreational management. After graduation in 1941, Owens found work in the Midwest as a landscape engineer for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
Five years later, he was recruited by the Peoria Park District where he stayed for thirty-six years. Early in the 1940s members of the Peoria Park Board became convinced that Peoria should have professionally-trained leadership to administer its parks and recreation programs. After a nationwide search, Owens was offered a position as landscape engineer with the Peoria Park District. In 1948 he was made assistant superintendent of the district and in 1952 became its first director-secretary. When he arrived in Peoria, the park district was 51 years old and it was a good example of the original pleasure driveway and parks concept. However, it had deteriorated badly and Owens found a park district in which political favoritism was endemic; run-down parks with thousands of blighted trees; two swimming pools that were inoperative; three golf courses; and a total of only 2,000 acres belonging to the park district.
However, the community had recently passed a tax levy and was ready to move forward. He quickly set about the task of renovating and maintaining a park system in which the community could take pride. He looked past the deterioration and saw an opportunity to develop something special. He began to plan for the future and buy land. He established a workable policy manual for board and administrative guidance and instituted a campaign to acquire professional personnel.
Planning and land acquisition were Owens' great legacies to Peoria. The rolling, hilly land around Peoria was aesthetically attractive. Owens' goal was to obtain as much of it as possible in advance of the city's need, before it was acquired for sub-divisions and while the price was relatively low. He later observed, "This was deeply satisfying work because we could see what we had accomplished. While we are here to serve people, we cannot do much without land."
Under his visionary leadership from 1945-1981, the Peoria Park District acquired more than 5,500 acres of parks and facilities, bringing the total to over 7,500 acres. He initiated the district's aggressive land acquisition program with help from the Forest Park Foundation and federal funding. By funneling land acquisitions through the foundation, the park district was able to buy more land at lower prices.
Owens realized immediately that if the park district met its basic charge to provide "opportunities for wholesome recreation for all citizens," maximum use of all resources had to be achieved. Consequently, he initiated a program policy of cooperative planning and programming for the Peoria area. He fostered strong partnerships with the heads of other public agencies and included them in the park district's master planning sessions. As president of the Greater Peoria Civic Association, he requested the formation of the Peoria County Regional Planning Association, which became the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, and he was active in the organization of Peoria City Beautiful.
Owens established a program of cooperative use of public facilities for recreation services with the Peoria School system. A park-school agreement was instituted which was cited as a model for other park systems in the state. Similarly, cooperative use agreements were adopted with the city of Peoria for tree and boulevard maintenance, the public library and the county of Peoria for grounds maintenance. The Peoria Park District also pioneered cooperative programming and development with quasi-public bodies such as the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, YWCA, YMCA, Allied Agencies and other social service organizations. Programs were developed with several major businesses within the area. By 1970, more than one hundred such cooperative ventures were underway with the park district.
In the early 1950s several cultural organizations -- the Peoria Art Guild, the Peoria Academy of Sciences, the Peoria Regional Museum Society, Peoria Garden Club and others -- were invited by Owens to use the venerable old Glen Oak Park Pavilion as a center for their activities and a fledgling Arts and Science Center Association was organized. This association quickly outgrew the building and with the instigation of the park district, a campaign was launched which resulted in the building of the $2 million Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences. Located in Lakeview Park, the building was maintained by the park district. Private funds provided programming and administration.
When the movement to merge park and recreation systems swept the nation, Owens was in the vanguard touting the phrase: "They go together like apple pie and ice cream." He nurtured enabling legislation through the Illinois legislature which paved the way for the merger of the Peoria Recreation Commission with the Peoria Park District in 1963. He was similarly in the vanguard of the movement to pass exaction ordinances in the late 1960s and early 1970s that required subdivision developers to allot a portion of their land to the park district. Owens strongly believed it was necessary to do this to preserve land in this rapidly developing area, and to add value to homeowner properties.
Owens retired at the end of 1981 after 36 years with the Peoria Park District. He had transformed it to the point where it had achieved national eminence. During his leadership, the Peoria Park District won the National Gold Medal Award for excellence in park management in 1971, and finalist status for the same award in 1979. In 1981, the Peoria Park Board named the new ice rink in Lakeview Park, the Owens Center in recognition of his years of service to the district. But perhaps his highest honor was bestowed by the city he served so well. In 1981, Peoria City Beautiful established "The Rhodell E. Owens Award" which recognizes one citizen each year for outstanding achievements in community beautification and enhancement.
Illinois Parks and Recreation; November/December 1981, pp. 9-10
Academy of Park and Recreation Administration Bulletin, 1994